Postcard from Beijing and the Great Wall of China (Part 1)

IMG_7637Whenever you pick up a postcard on your travels (even if only to look) you’re likely to find that that postcard-worthy photograph has the following characteristics: it’s framed to show the scene from its best perspective (which includes being minus the mobs of people who might be there from time to time) and the weather – if it’s an outdoor photo – will be perfection. For most people we know who have visited Beijing and The Great Wall of China, finding that perfect-weather day where the sun is shining, the air is clear and the crowds are minimal, seems just about impossible. But we did it. We were there that day. Let’s back up…

Using a small cruise ship – the Silversea Silver Shadow – as our transportation, we leave Shanghai to traverse the Yellow Sea enroute to Beijing. But Beijing isn’t on the coast, you might reasonably interject. No, it isn’t, but that won’t stop us from visiting inland. Before we left home in Toronto, we booked what Silversea calls and “Overland Journey.” This means that in mid-cruise, we will leave the ship, travel by bullet train to Beijing, tour the city, overnight in a first-class hotel, visit the Great Wall the next day, then rejoin the ship.

We arrive in the early hours of the morning to the eerily silent cruise-ship terminal in the port of Tianjin.

 

Steeling ourselves for the fact that this is a group tour (and everyone knows how much we love a group excursion – not!), we meet the tour guide shore-side then board a surprisingly well-appointed bus that leaves precisely on time and transports us to the Tianjin train station. It is a huge facility. Since we have a bit of time before we have to board our train, we take a walk around the terminal. It’s a peculiar feeling to be examined so closely by so many sets of eyes, as if they have never seen a people from the West, and it turns out that many of them in the station that day had seen very few.

 

We finally board the train for the 35-minute ride to North Beijing station at a speed that reaches 297 km/hour – we know this since the speed at which the train is travelling flashes across the screen in the front of the car. If we had taken a bus a many of the other cruise-ship passengers did, it would have taken upwards of two hours to get there. We arrive in Beijing. Despite the expectation that we will suffer from the smog, we marvel at the clear sky and sunshine. Our guide explains to us that it rained heavily the night before and the ever-present pollution is now spattered on every car, window and leaf. We notice. Then we are off to visit the Forbidden City.

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It’s hard to miss the evidence of the previous evening’s smog-rain!

The largest imperial palace in the world, The Forbidden City is truly the heart of Beijing. It was constructed in the fifteenth century through the efforts of over 1 million workers over a period of 20 years during the Ming Dynasty and was the imperial home of 24 Emperors of China for over 400 years. It comprises some 980 buildings and almost 9000 rooms! Forbidden to the common Chinese for centuries, it ceased being the seat of Chinese power in 1912 with the abdication of the last emperor of China. (Have you seen the film The Last Emperor? It was filmed here.) Of course, now it is known as the Palace Museum, because that’s what it is. According to our guide, it’s not very busy today. We beg to differ.

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Entering the outer courtyard of The Forbidden City

We spend time getting to the heart of the city through a series of courtyards and are mildly disappointed that you can’t actually go into the buildings. Even the throne room must be viewed from afar. But the architecture! Amazing. Tiananmen Square is next on the agenda.

The square itself seems smaller than it looks on television news reports. We are all old enough to be remembering the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, odd since the word Tiananmen is the name of the gate at the north end of the square that means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The two of us break off from our tour group (nothing new in that!) and walk the entire square taking in the buildings and monuments: The Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, he National Museum of China, and of course, the mausoleum where Mao’s body still lies in state (we didn’t get inside). But we also see beautiful gardens and more security cameras than we have ever seen in our lives – even in Monaco! It’s an extraordinary juxtaposition of the political and the aesthetic.

 

We notice that one thing is missing: city noise. According to our guide, sirens and other loud nose is forbidden in the area surrounding the square. It is oddly peaceful.

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Extraordinary gardens around the square.

It has now been a long day and we check into our room at the Four Seasons Hotel Beijing. What an extraordinary property! We aren’t sure what we expected, but a five-star hotel smack in the middle of a very upscale, leafy neighbourhood of high-end shopping was not it.

The hotel has spared no detail in its amenities or décor. We choose the Asian restaurant (why would we choose North American while in Asia?) and are delighted with the ambience, the food and the service – the Chinese servers really seem to care. And even their halting English is a lot better than our Chinese, for which we are truly grateful.

 

We have only one night at this wonderful, surprising hotel and would like to spend longer enjoying a night cap in the beautiful bar, but tomorrow we are visiting The Great Wall and have to be up early. So, good night from Beijing.

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Making Discerning Travel choices: A tale of two inns

adirondack-chairsThere is nothing quite like an extended road trip to teach you a few things about making discerning travel choices. We have just returned from a three-stage trip that took us from Toronto through the Niagara peninsula to upstate New York then on to New Hampshire, New Brunswick and ending up in (stage two) Halifax, Nova Scotia for a five-day stop to visit friends and family. The third stage took us home from Halifax via Nova Scotia’s south shore, St. Andrews, New Brunswick then on to Wentworth-by-the Sea in New Hampshire and Lake Placid NY before arriving back in Toronto. Planning this kind of trip can tax the discernment of even the most seasoned of us! And plan we do.

There are road-trippers who can just pack a bag, throw it in the trunk and set off in a direction with little idea of where they might be stopping, eating, sleeping or even ending up. We are not like that. We like new experiences and discovering the delights of new places, but we don’t like to be surprised by our accommodation. This may hearken back to Patty’s childhood when family holidays to visit the grandmother consisted of three or four days in the car punctuated by nights in roadside motels – the kind with those plastic chairs outside of every door and your car parked nose up to your window. And of course the choice was based on which ones had “vacancy” signs out front when her father was tired of driving. Leaves too much to chance for discerning travelers of a certain age. So we conduct our due diligence, plot a course, book the hotels and set out. This time we stayed at a few tried-and-true properties, but opted for some new experiences. We were mostly happy, but at least one of our choices taught us yet new lessons about discernment.

As we’ve said before, the discerning traveler is a discriminating traveler.

“This is the traveler who is astute, judicious, perceptive, sensitive, insightful. It’s not necessarily for the ‘luxury’ traveler…travelers who want to see the world and want to do it in a way that is comfortable and makes them feel that travel itself is a luxury…”

In addition to this, discerning travelers want to be assured that they are getting value for the amount of money that they are willing to pay. Almost always, this pays off in experiences that we truly savour. This time we had one experience that didn’t meet its mark. It’s all a matter of expectations. The story involves two inns in the north-eastern US – one in upstate New York, the other in northern New Hampshire in the White Mountains.

The first stop on our road trip was Geneva, New York. A lovely little town located on the northern end of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Geneva is home to the beautiful Hobart and William Smith Colleges that meant nothing to us until we realized they are the successor of what used to be Geneva College, including Geneva Medical College. We recognized that as the alma mater of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US in 1849. The campus is beautiful and the ambience very cultured.

img_3874We selected Geneva-on-the Lake, a beautiful inn which is, as its name suggests, on the lake. Its history dates to 1910 when it was built as a private residence for a prominent Geneva resident. After the original owner died, his wife and son expanded the original house relying heavily on an aesthetic they had picked up on visits to Italy: it is reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance. In 1949 they sold it to the Capuchin Fathers, a branch of the Franciscan order after which it served as a seminary and monastery until 1974. Remnants of that life are still evident. For four years in the 1970’s it housed Vietnam veterans as well as students, but had periods of abandonment. It was restored to its current state in the early 1980’s and has been a year-round resort ever since.

We had booked a small suite and when we arrived we found we had been upgraded to a very large one. Knowing we were booking into an old property, we were nevertheless impressed with the upkeep of the building and especially its environment. The dining room was absolutely perfect, serving truly gourmet fare surrounded by a romantic ambience that included a live harpist. And the grounds were a delight. The expensive price tag was worth it. Then we were on to Saratoga Springs followed by Franconia, New Hampshire where we stayed at inn number two.

img_3937The Franconia Inn also has a history. Also situated on a large piece of property (in this case evidently 107 acres), this inn dates to 1863 and its focus is on downhill skiing in the nearby Franconia notch area as well as cross-country-skiing and hiking. It also has a stable for horseback riding.

We arrived at this inn to be greeted by a slightly sloppy-looking, harried front-desk clerk who was on the phone telling a client that indeed they did have rooms available for that night. When we finally checked in, we had to drag our bags up the front steps (yes, there is a ramp, but it does not lead to anywhere near the driveway and lands in an unpaved parking lot shared by the riding stables), then up a full flight of stairs to the second floor.

We had booked what they referred to as a “spacious” room – level three out of four levels they offer (good lord, what must the “cozy” rooms look like?). Anyway, it had no phone to even call the front desk to ask for towels nor did it have a television. This is not a big issue, but it’s the twenty-first century and this is not an ashram hosting a meditation retreat. The bathroom was small and pokey, but worst of all in it was the trickle of water that passed for a shower the next morning. The wallpaper was hideous, but that’s just a taste thing. Then there was the outdoor activity.

First, this inn is not located in the kind of place that Geneva-on-the-Lake is. It is a few miles from town on a small highway with its unpaved parking lot across the street. That meant that we’d focus on the walking trails that the front desk clerk told us were out behind the inn. She handed us a map and we were off.

We found the place where the grass was cut deeper and noted the first marker leading us to the trail, so we were off. It wasn’t long before we began to notice that the trail was not, in fact, maintained. It was only as wide as the horses needed: it was a horse trail. We walked further and found not a single other marker to indicate the direction we should go and the trail got narrower and muddier as we went. Finally, we came upon a small river. Frozen in winter, it would be a simple cross for a cross-country skier or even a horse in summer, but we had neither horses nor skis. The only way out was back the way we came. By the time we emerged from the “trail” our feet were soaked and filthy. When we told the desk clerk about the lack of maintenance, she rather unhelpfully said, “Oh.”

Finally, there ws the dining experience. The dining room is billed online as having “intimate candle lit tables” that take in the “spectacular view of the White Mountain landscape.” We’ll grant them that it was a dull and drizzly type of day, but there was absolutely no view whatsoever, and we seem to have missed the intimacy of this room that simply looked like a dining room in an old restaurant. The food was very good, though. Our main issue was with the service. At dinner that evening, there was a line up for seating in the sparsely populated space – there were servers about, but there did not seem to be anyone seating people. The next morning, we encountered the opposite problem: all the servers (three of them) were seating people, but there was no one to take orders. So we sat at our little table and froze for a while, then fled as quickly as possible to get into the car and onto the next stop.

The bottom line is that both of these experiences cost almost identical amounts of money (fairly pricey), and yet the experience was totally different. Our money was far better spent in the experience at Geneva than Franconia. The lesson for us: you can plan down to the final detail, then you have to let go and enjoy whatever experience pops up. We just laughed off the whole thing.

We look forward to returning to Geneva-on-the-Lake. Franconia Inn we’ll chalk up to experience.

A preferred guest? Or just a member? Which would you prefer?

The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station.  It has been fabulously restored.
The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station. It has been fabulously restored.

There is an old adage of the seasoned – and discerning traveler – and that is this: never set foot on an airplane or in a hotel room without being a member of their frequent guest/flyer program.   Even if you don’t travel often, or are taking that airline only because there isn’t an alternative just this once – you should still be collecting points of one sort or another.  We gave this piece of advice to our then 20-year-old son when he began jetting around the world as a dancer with Les Ballet de Monte Carlo.  So, even on airlines that they booked only once, he collected miles.  Then, two years ago when he began preparations for relocating to London, he had enough frequent-flyer miles in several different accounts to redeem for many a weekend trip between Nice and London.  But not all programs are created equal.

Our own hotel loyalty program memberships go back many, many years.  Let’s go back about 20 years when we first found ourselves as frequent visitors to Toronto.  Loyal to the Sheraton brand, we had only recently learned the lesson of joining various hotel loyalty programs when one weekend our travel agent (that was before the days of online bookings) couldn’t get us a room at the Sheraton downtown Toronto.  He told us he’d put us as an equivalent downtown hotel , and we found ourselves checking into the Marriott at the Eaton Centre – there is no finer location when visiting Toronto.   But it was Marriott’s staff that made us sit up and take note – and in fact, made us eschew the Sheraton for many years of travel there and far beyond, finding as we did the high quality of the staff training extended far outside of their Eaton Centre location.  So over the years we found ourselves rising ever higher in the Marriott Rewards program which has frequently been voted one of the best in the world.  And it’s not hard to see why.

With some 3700+ properties around the world under their various brands, it’s not hard to figure out that there would be a lot to choose from when trying to redeem points for nights.  And we’ve had great luck doing so.  What we also noticed is that as we rose through gold to platinum status, we were treated rather well at the properties.  We worry, though, about how we’ll be treated when we have a year in which we don’t have as many nights at Marriott’s.  Like this year when we’re prepping to sell our house and move, and have to stay around the bay here in Nova Scotia for many more months than we usually do.  When we no longer hold platinum status will being a member be enough?  We’re not so sure, and it’s all because of Starwood.

Last summer we planned a trip to the Blue Mountains area of Ontario to see our daughter in summer theatre in Collingwood.  The nicest hotel on offer around those parts was the Westin Trillium, a Starwood property (who also owns Sheraton hotels among many other brands). So we dusted off our Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card which had not been used in some time, and made our reservations for a summer road trip.When we arrived to check in to the Westin Trillium we found ourselves really believing that we were, in fact, preferred guests.  We did not have any ‘status’ in the program, and yet found ourselves feeling like we do when we’re greeted at a Marriott property as Platinum members!  (Bear in mind that you have to stay 75 nights in one year to be platinum so well you should be treated like royalty: you are, after all, paying the salaries so to speak!).  We were delighted, but wondered if this was just a pleasant surprise of this particular Westin.  It wasn’t.

The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.
The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.

Just this past February we spent six days on the Island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean and our hotel of choice there was the Westin Dawn Beach.  Although we now had a paltry number points actually showing up on our membership screen at check-in, we were again treated preferentially.  Then again in April, we stayed at the Westin in Dublin and felt the same wonderful treatment.  The Starwood Preferred Guest program (SPG) is aptly named as far as we’re concerned.  So where does that leave us in terms of our evaluation of loyalty programs?

The lesson we take away from this is that belonging to these programs is a good thing in the long run, but staying loyal can actually prove to be an obstacle to experiencing other brands and other types of accommodations.  The same lesson would ring true for airline loyalty programs.

This year we had to take a couple of flights outside of our usual program – Air Canada’s Aeroplan program and its connection to Star Alliance.  Add onto that the fact that we are likely to lose our particular elite status this year because we are putting off much of our travel until next year (and could not take all of our flights on Starr Alliance airlines), and we realize that we will no longer be treated as anything special.  And on an airline that’s even worse!

Despite the fact that we have been high-level elite members for many years, because we won’t have as many miles racked up this year we will lose our perks entirely – no priority check-in, priority boarding, free checked baggage etc.  So, where’s our incentive to continue to be loyal to Air Canada?  Well, and this is a message to loyalty programs, there isn’t one.  This means that for all intents and purposes, Air Canada has lost good customers.  The next time we’re looking for a business-class ticket to London from Toronto, we are just as likely to book on British Airways.  Over the years we would not have even considered it.

So here is the challenge for these programs: how are you going to find a way to keep your frequent flyers when they get to a point in their lives when they have the luxury of choice?  Or when they have one year when they fly less frequently?  Perhaps you need to consider how you might make us feel preferred, and not just members.  Maybe the SPG program could give you a few pointers.

You might like to read: The ups and downs of loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?

The view from where we're spending summer this year!
The view from where we’re spending summer this year!

Ireland by castle!

Blarney Castle & gardens
Blarney Castle & gardens

Castle – the very word conjures up images of knights and ladies, opulence and intrigue.  And a trip to Ireland would not be complete without a few castles.  So, when we planned our recent chauffeured tour of the Emerald Isle, we made sure that there were castles along the way, both to visit and to stay.  So, come along with us for a trip into history and share our castle experience.

Let’s start by making sure we know what the term castle means (trust us; this is important if you’re to understand the experience!).

Most people think that castles are home to royalty and their servants (that would be a palace by actual definition), but the real definition of a castle has more to do with fortifications and protection – and it was not always for royalty, although given the resources needed to actually build one, clearly they were not erected by the common man – or woman.  So when you consider visiting – or staying in – a castle, you’re really going to be experiencing an historical creation that might have been built by royalty, but more likely was built by other powerful leaders or even families who needed to protect villages or families, or both.

Waiting to kiss the Blarney Stone!
Waiting to kiss the Blarney Stone!

As we left Dublin we headed south toward Blarney, home to the famous Blarney Castle with its legendary stone that must be kissed (we’ll get to that!).  Built some six centuries ago by a powerful Irish chieftain, Blarney Castle itself might take you by surprise.  It is a tower castle, and as such when you go inside you are on the bottom floor of a relatively small tower that once had a number of stories each of whose floor was at one time made of wood so now no longer exists – you can see right up through to the sky.  But you need to make your way up to the top via a narrow, well-worn stone stairway, and as you do, think about what it must have been like to fight your way up or down those narrow stairs!  When we reached the top we were rewarded by a breathtaking view of Blarney Castle’s gardens which were fabulous in their early-spring glory.  And at the top, the Blarney Stone awaits.

blarney stoneIn case you’ve forgotten, the whole point of kissing the stone is so that you can acquire the ‘gift of the gab.’  Well, anyone who has ever met Patty in particular will know that this is wholly redundant! But she reluctantly took her place on her back on the stone floor of the open-air battlement, and duly hung her head out backwards into the opening in the stone work as you must, since the Blarney stone must be kissed from underneath while one’s head hangs out hundreds of feet above ground.  In position, she decided that she didn’t really need to kiss the place that hundreds of other lips had just passed over.  But it was worth it all the same.  One legend has it that a certain goddess told the builder of Blarney Castle, who was at the time embroiled in a lawsuit, to kiss the first stone he saw on his way out the door for the gift of eloquence which evidently was bestowed up on him by the ritual.

Beautiful Ashford Castle from the lakefront view.
Beautiful Ashford Castle from the lakefront view.

After that first castle experience we visited a number of other tower castles, eventually making our way to County Mayo and the wonderful Ashford Castle, a very different sort of experience.  Here we stayed for two nights on this magnificent estate whose origins date to 1228.  Through the ensuing centuries, pieces were added until the estate – castle and grounds on the shores of the lake Corrib – were acquired in 1852 by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness of the Guinness beer fame.    It was eventually sold; in 1939 it was first transformed into what was then referred to as a “first-class hotel.”  It passed through the hands of several owners until this day when it stands as a grand hotel that has been voted the number 1 hotel in Ireland by Condé Nast Traveller many times, and Trip Advisor’s number 1 European castle hotel; it has also garnered a mass of other accolades.

cheersSo we spent two days strolling the grounds and exploring the grand building, feeling a bit like royalty ourselves.  As we walked through the striking rooms, we found ourselves swept back in time.  The floors creak a bit but the décor is authentic – and priceless.  Our discerning scrutiny, as always, looks to the service as the piece that is most important in the end, and Ashford Castle did not disappoint (with one small exception of a surly bartender who was reformed by the following evening!).

We spent our last night in Ireland sitting in the magnificent lounge listening to a wonderful trio of singer, pianist and guitarist whose smooth melodies lulled us into complete relaxation.  Their rendition of The Fields of Athenry will always stay with us – haunting us, no doubt, until we return to the Emerald Isle.